Amherst's Blarney Blowout cost more than $200,000 in public safety, consultant fees and property damage

Monday, March 24, 2014
AMHERST — When the dust settles after this year’s Blarney Blowout, the financial toll from the alcohol-fueled event near the University of Massachusetts tallies up at more than $200,000 in public safety, consultant fees and property damage, though some costs can’t be quantified.

Other costs for emergency department care, public officials’ time, resources and supplies as well as unreported private property damage related to the March 8-9 affair sends that figure spiraling further upward.

“I’ll bet you the number is very significant, much more significant than people realize,” said Stephen Walczak, property manager of Puffton Village, where about 900 students live in 378 apartments. “It’s an aspect that nobody ever gets a real picture of. I think people would be astounded at how much this thing costs.”

And what will be the sum of all the bail, court fees and fines levied on students and other partyers, their lawyers’ bills and the cost of missed classes for those arrested in the mayhem? These are not taxpayer costs, but they add to the tally of an event that annually ties up important resources and brings national embarrassment to UMass.

The Blarney Blowout, a pre-St. Patrick’s Day celebration where thousands of cacophonous and unruly young people take part in off-campus parties, this year prompted a police response in riot gear that included pepper-spraying the uncooperative. There were 65 people arrested and 141 charged in total from Friday through Sunday. Among those arrested were approximately 20 UMass students.

The majority of others were students from colleges and universities from around New England and the Mid-Atlantic region, according to police reports.

Last week, UMass announced that it was hiring former Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis to review the upheaval related to the Blarney Blowout and how the university and town of Amherst responded to the event. The review will cost up to $160,000.

Street signs, vehicles, mailboxes, a light pole and even a portable toilet were reported damaged, stolen or destroyed over the Blarney Blowout weekend. As police dealt with more urgent matters of crowd control on town streets where beer bottles and cans and snowballs were flying, many of those property damage calls fell by the wayside.

Police cruisers were damaged and dented, police said, and the Gazette has obtained video of one young man clad in green single-handedly tearing down an approximately 25-foot-tall light pole at Brandywine Apartments to the delight of a large crowd.

“There were a lot of calls we just couldn’t get to,” said Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone. “There was a lot of private property destruction that we probably didn’t even hear about.”

Public safety costs

The Blarney Blowout cost Amherst taxpayers at least $13,800 for police and dispatcher overtime, and another $2,000 in pepper spray pellets, which go for about $1 per round. At one point, Livingstone said, Amherst police had to borrow pepper spray from the Massachusetts State Police because they ran out.

The University of Massachusetts Police Department dedicated five officers to the event at a cost of $4,218 in overtime, according to UMass.

The Massachusetts State Police reported about $900 in overtime costs related to the Blarney Blowout. The state police provided seven troopers with a community action team, a patrol supervisor, two K9 troopers with dogs and two additional troopers who each worked about 7.5 hours of overtime on an evening shift.

The Amherst Fire Department called in extra staff, bringing its Blarney Blowout crew to 13 emergency workers who ran five ambulances. The Fire Department incurred about $2,100 in overtime and made 39 ambulance calls during the Blarney Blowout, 20 of which were related to the event, said Amherst Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson. Other costs for fuel, medical equipment and supplies had not yet been tallied.

“It all adds up,” Nelson said.

Nelson said that 12 — or 60 percent — of ambulance calls on and off the UMass campus during the Blarney Blowout required transporting someone to the hospital. He said if the Fire Department hadn’t staffed up to 13 workers, it would have required mutual aid.

“What amazed me was how widespread and how many corners these kids came from,” said Nelson, who worked a 15-hour day during the Blarney Blowout. “The visitors’ lots were filled, absolutely filled with people and cars.”

At Cooley Dickinson Hospital, the large-scale event also takes a toll on emergency department resources, said spokeswoman Christina Trinchero. She said the hospital now plans for events like the Blarney Blowout by collaborating with Amherst and UMass public safety departments, but it cannot predict the number of people locally who come to the emergency department at the same time who require life-saving or emergency care.

“Staffing the ED (emergency department) with additional personnel for these events results in thousands of dollars in additional expenses,” Trinchero said.

Property damage

Property damage was widespread around Amherst during the Blarney Blowout, and while no official tally has been made — and it’s possible that some was not reported — the price tag is in the thousands of dollars. One town resident reported $4,000 in damage to the roof, hood and doors of a vehicle parked on North Pleasant St. during the Blarney Blowout while a contractor reported that a portable toilet had been destroyed on State Street, possibly by fireworks.

The Amherst Department of Public Works reported three street signs stolen and a stop sign damaged at a total cost of approximately $1,100.

Three of the larger housing complexes (Puffton Village, Townehouse of Amherst and Brandywine Apartments) where crowds congregated during the Blarney Blowout reported a total of about $10,000 in expenses related to the event, though most of those costs were to hire additional staff and security.

“Because the police got them out of there so quickly, the damage was fairly limited as to what it could have been,” said Andrew Newcomb, property manager at Brandywine Apartments, where 350 people live in 180 units. “If police hadn’t or couldn’t clear people out, I hate to think what could have happened. We’ve seen this before, we’ve seen how this gets.”

Newcomb said the complex had a door window broken and an approximately 25-foot light pole taken down behind building 7 that resulted in $1,500 to $2,000 in damage. He also estimated it took about 20 work hours for trash removal on the grounds.

At Townehouse of Amherst on Meadow Street, where approximately 300 people live in 96 units, property manager Pat Kamins estimated the Blarney Blowout cost about $2,000 for added security and cleanup, though he reported no property damage.

“Every spring it costs us money to pick up,” he said of student-driven UMass spring events. “There was no major catastrophe.”

He added that the Blarney Blowout in particular seems to be getting “bigger and bigger” every year.

“It’s scary,” Kamins said.

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.